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Africa – Washington’s Africa Summit needs economic and trade clarity

The US agenda driving this week’s Africa Summit in Washington, where some 50 African states will be represented, remains something of a mystery. Africa’s agenda, by contrast, should be clear – economic ties and trade developments including the extension of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). President Barack Obama’s African genes, China’s rapid expansion into Africa and the sense of African neglect in Mr Obama’s foreign policy have been offered by US academics as the reasons for the gathering, but as far as the African nations are concerned, the outcome must hold tangible benefits for the continent and not just more promises and platitudes. The agenda is likely to include options and possible solutions to kidnappings and killings by Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al-Shabaab in Kenya, the war and tragedy in South Sudan and the outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa.

From an African perspective, the summit will have a strong economic aspect. The key issue is AGOA and its extension for another 15 years, as South Africa is going to suggest to the White House and to the Washington lawmakers who are due to review the AGOA legislation. Opposition to any extension is mounting in the US Congress. South Africa’s participation in the duty-free access to US markets provided by AGOA membership hangs by the proverbial thread due to mounting pressure within Congress and elements in the US executive to determine that, because South Africa is a ‘middle-income’ country, it should no longer be allowed AGOA benefits.

South African sources acknowledged that trade and industry department arguments for Pretoria’s continued membership are going to be a very hard sell. While there is some confidence that AGOA itself will be extended, concern remains over how much longer AGOA will be in play and there is real concern over South Africa’s continued participation. The consensus among Southern African Development Community (SADC) officials in Gaborone and Pretoria, according to sources, is that AGOA will survive, but it may be scaled back with some additional exclusions and a shorter timeframe. The idea would be to give African beneficiaries of the programme sufficient time to wean themselves off the AGOA process, which many of its opponents in the US Congress say was never intended to be without end.

While there may be some temptation to regard this week’s gatherings (there will be more than one) as a junket and US sightseeing opportunity, it is imperative for the African delegations to push trade and economic benefits while there is still some opportunity to do so. Attitudes in the US are hardening and freebies are going to become more and more difficult to secure, despite any pressure the US may feel from its ‘competition’ in Africa against China. While it may be galling and difficult to understand why the US continues to insist on imposing sanctions on Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe while inviting Egyptian coup leaders, African delegations must not be distracted. A united front and strong rational arguments will be needed in Washington next week.

WHY DO WE CARE? The AGOA process has certainly contributed to African trade development even though it has also been exploited by third parties to gain access to US markets. It is a better process than direct budget support and it has social benefits beyond economic progress. But AGOA was never intended to be open ended and pressure is building in the US Congress to rein it in. This week’s Africa Summit in Washington and the various sideshows and gala dinners will be very important in swaying lawmakers to maintain the programme and lend political weight to AGOA supporters. AGOA will survive this round, but for how much longer and to what extent remains an open question. South Africa faces the hardest sell of all.

Analyst: Gary van Staden

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